Human Journey

The Perils of Early Arctic Exploration

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s recent 130th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.


A.W. Greely’s 1881 Arctic expedition tragically demonstrated the hardships and deadliness of attempts to explore the Far North. Despite his achievements before and after the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, his reputation would forever be tainted.

Adolphus Washington Greely was born at Newbury, Massachusetts, on March 27, 1844, the son of John Balch and Frances Cobb Greely. He graduated in 1860, in time for enlistment for the beginning of the Civil War. He started as a private but was brevetted a captain for gallant service, ending the war as a major.

In 1867, with the return of the peacetime rank structure, Greely was appointed a second lieutenant in the regular Army. From 1876 to 1879 he was on Signal Corps duty, during which time he constructed two thousand miles of telegraph lines in Texas, Dakota, and Montana.

In 1881, Greely was in charge of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition to the Arctic in order to establish one of a chain of international circumpolar weather stations. This expedition began as part of the first International Polar Year, reached the high latitudes of Canada north of Baffin Bay as well as crossing Ellesmere Island for the first time,charting parts of the coast of Greenland, and achieving a new northern record of 83 degrees, 24 minutes. Unfortunately, two relief ships failed to appear. Commander Winfield Scott Schley at the head of a third relief vessel finally made it–but by then it was 1884, and 18 of the 25 men had died.

Controversy over whether the men had resorted to cannibalism would linger for years, but Greely moved on with his career. In 1886 he was promoted to captain, and then further promoted to brigadier general, being the first volunteer private of the Civil War to reach this rank in the regular Army. During the next few decades, as head of the U.S. Signal Service, he supervised the installation of telegraphic communications for the army in such places as the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Alaska. In 1888, he was one of six to issue an invitation to a meeting to discuss the advisability of founding a society for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge and contributed many articles to its new journal, the National Geographic magazine.

Promoted to major general in 1906 and given temporary command of the Pacific Division, he had hardly been at his post when he left San Francisco for the East Coast to attend his daughter’s wedding. Upon receiving word of the catastrophic events of the morning of April 18—a massive earthquake measuring the equivalent of 8.3 on the Richter scale and a resulting fire that ravaged the city–he turned around immediately. When he arrived to what remained of the city on April 23, he assumed command for, as he states in his official report as well as his own memoirs, “the largest force – army, marine, and navy- that ever worked together in peacetime.”

Greely and his staff in San Francisco. Photo from the National Archives & Records Administration.

By April 26, after meetings with the mayor and other authorities, Greely and the Army were not only responsible for keeping civil order, they had also taken full control of the relief efforts and were responsible for the food, clothing, and shelter of well over 300,000 refugees, working closely with the fledgling Red Cross.

Greely retired in 1908 but lived on for many years, passing away on October 20, 1935. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Photographs courtesy Library of Congress and University of Washington, via Wikicommons.

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